G'day mates

The white clouds touched the horizon in every direction as Qantas flight 46 began its descent into Sydney's Kingford Smith airport. The roar of the jets were momentarily muffled as we passed into the layer of cloud that had been below us since Christchurch. Less than 3 hours earlier we had bee saying farewell to the country we'd called home for the last 3 and a half months. Soon we'd be arriving in a city larger than any we'd been to since leaving North America in September.

The engine roar returned and the pilot began banking as we emerged from the clouds. Below us lay Sydney, in all her glory. Underneath our left wing, the unmistakeable sails of the Opera house appeared, followed by the iconic bridge and then the skyscrapers that could denote any large city's CBD. We were in Australia, except the forecast was for rain and we couldn't see any kangaroos through the oval window…

Last few days in NZ

Having watched the Disney film Below Eight (a great film to watch), we resisted the urge to thumb a lift down south, and decided to stick to the original plan of returning to Christchurch for our flight on to Sydney.

After our last paddling session in Queenstown with a fellow Brit called Rich whose hospitality was amazing and whose house had some of the most beautiful views you could imagine, we started the drive back to Christchurch where we'd soon be leaving wonderful New Zealand. One of the sights we stopped en route to see was the majestic Mount Cook, where Sir Edmund Hillary famously trained for the first successful ascent of Mount Everest. The sun was out and the blue colour of the lakes nearby was quite extraordinary. Coincidently while on one of the dirt tracks in the area, we saw Gemma (an Aussie from my kayak course) and her boyfriend who had just paddled the rather cold looking glacial Waipora. The night before we watched a beautiful sunset with the only pain being the insistent sandflies. We decided against climbing the mountain – its somewhat of a serious endeavour with a tragedy happening to an experienced mountain guide in the last month – however I could definitely see the appeal of reaching the summit of such a magnificent peak, maybe something to add to the to do list for next time…

Instead of pushing on to Christchurch that night, we stopped in Geraldine and continued on the next day. This enabled us to visit the Tin Shed which had a small collection of farm animals including a tiny piglet that reminded me of the one we'd seen at the farm in Taupo and I wondered how big he would've grown to – a sign of the length of time we'd spent in New Zealand. We made what was our third visit to a campsite in Christchurch, apart from this time it'd be us saying goodbye to NZ rather than to our visitors. We joined the many other people who were washing their vans ready for departure, and Kimi looked beautiful.

Sadly though the Christchurch Backpackers Car Market was not like the one in Auckland . When we brought Kimi, the staff had offered advice and been actively trying to sell the vehicles, while the market was renowned throughout Auckland as the place to buy a vehicle. None of these luxuries existed in Christchurch and we were to get rather too well acquainted with the building while waiting hopefully for buyers to turn up. We made posters and stuck them to the noticeboards in all the hostels we could find, but it was only Tuesday that 2 Swiss girls decided to buy Kimi. They paid a little less than we would have liked but they seemed like they would take care of her and love her as much as we did.

With Kimi off on her next Kiwi adventure, we were able to relax and enjoy the city, as we explored the musuem and climbed the Cathedral's spire. The YMCA we stayed at, was convienently located opposite the Arts Centre, and was a very good place to stay. The hostels were pretty full in town, in fact the YHA could only offer us a room on the day of a our flight – 6 days after when we were enquiring! The streets were definitely more full of hustle and bustle as the tourists had come for the sun, and there was a great summery atmosphere. Although we had spent more time trying to sell Kimi than we had anticipated, we were still able to see quite a few sights. Christchurch is a very pretty little city, and its size means that many attractions are within easy walking distance from each other.

Soon after we arrived in Christchurch, we heard the sad news that Sir Edmund Hillary had died. It was pretty striking how much respect he had from his fellow Kiwis. There was quite a lot in the media about how he was the epitome of New Zealandness, and this was clearly a source of pride to many.

With thoughts of travelling lighter in India and Nepal, we sent quite a lot of stuff home – including the laptop so apologies if we don't have so many photos up in the next couple of months – and left some of the camping stuff we'd accumulated with Kimi. It didn't take so long to pack, though my bag is certainly not as light as I would've liked, but at least the kayaks are well within the weight restrictions now! All too soon it was time for us to leave, but one thing's sure and thats we'll be back soon.

First few days in Oz

Australia is renowned for being one of the driest countries in the world (apparently its the driest inhabited continent) and is pretty famous for being hot, so our first few days of rain and wind weren't quite what I expected when experiencing the summer in Oz.

Our entry into the country was probably the easiest yet, with little waiting time for passport control and biosecurity not wanting to check our kayaks. I was a little disappointed not to see any beagles, despite posters telling us they were on duty.

While wandering around Sydney, we've seen the iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge, walked around the Rocks and China Town, saw the views from the Sky Tower (depite the low clouds) and found Nemo in the aquarium with (nearly) all his friends. We also found out about opals, saw a replica Endeavour and sipped delicious hot chocolates from a Lindt chocolate cafe.

On Sunday we picked up Nikki, our Hippie Camper van who will be our travelling companion for the next month as we travel up to Cairns. She comes complete with air conditioning, a fridge that works as a freezer if set to the wrong temperature we found out, a toaster, an electric kettle and a whistling hob kettle!

We've yet to see a kangaroo and cuddle a koala, but there's time and I did see my first kangaroo warning sign today!

New Zealand in the New Year

So far in this new year, we've been making the most of the beautiful rivers available for us to paddle in New Zealand – its a hard life!

New Year's Day brought us a (somewhat) delayed paddle down the Earthquake section of the Buller with its bouncy waves and lovely gorge, the decision not to wear a cag may have been a little optimistic but at least it helped clear the head. It was a good start to the year with paddlers from all over the world enjoying the same section and lack of sandflies.

Soon, the campsite at Murchison cleared of paddlers as they headed to the West Coast or back home, but we enjoyed a yummy barbecue prepared and cooked by Sandy and Jason – it seems the Aussies can cook a decent barbecue! We cleaned all our paddling kit ready to head off to other rivers. The plan was to find a heliboat run that wasn't particularly hard core and we had thought of the Mokihinui. However talking to the pilot soon put us off when we found out the price. His suggestion was the Karamea which was closer to where he was based and therefore significantly cheaper. It sounded like a plan and so we drove up to the tiny village of Karamea, picking up a Canadian hitchhiker who wanted to get up to a commune type place up there – goodness knows how she managed to hitch back from there, and she broke one of our beers…

Anyway the next morning saw us at the take out battling with sandflies, when our shiny blue helicopter turned up. I got to video this while David, Andre and Phil helped load boats into the net and then Phil went up to the put in. Pretty soon the helicopter returned and it was our turn to head up the river, trying to look at the rapids as we flew. One thing to remember is that rivers look much smaller from height! The Karamea was a stunning green river with tight technical grade 3 rapids, at least in the low levels we were paddling it. There was a harder rapid called Holy Shit which I decided to walk, having pretty much talked myself out of before we got there – something I need to learn to stop doing! It was a great run, well recommended.

Sadly then we had to say goodbye to Phil and Andre as they had to catch the ferry to the North Island and we started the long drive south to Queenstown. En route we stopped to take a look at Fox Glacier, again a stunning sight especially in the sunshine! We stayed near Haast and had breakfast the following morning at a view point by the sea. Signs told us that dolphins and orcas were sometimes seen here, and I wondered how anyone would see anything from there when the sea was vast. Then, to my surprise and delight, I saw something jumping in the water and we realised we were watching a pod of dolphins – a fantastic start to any day!

We made it to Queenstown after a quick stop in Wanaka for lunch and some puzzles in the Puzzling World, having seen some fabulous scenery in the rather intense heat. Queenstown is a different town in the sunshine and has a lovely atmosphere, especially while you sit by the lake eating fish and chips! I better head out now but will update soon about the river adventures we've had around here.

Hope everyone is having as good a start to 2008 as we are!

Happy 2008!

Happy New Year one and all. We saw in the New Year in Murchison with a splash at the riverside campsite along with almost every other paddler in New Zealand.
We've been paddling with German Phil and a friend of his, Andre, for the last few days, notching up more runs on the Buller sections, Matakitaki and Glenroy. Phil and I paddled Maruia falls – a 30ft waterfall created by an earthquake in 1929. Good fun.

The plan at the moment is to leave Murchison today and head to the west coast where we can hopefully organise a helicopter to take us in to the Karamea for a multi-day trip.

We've been able to take more river photos now we've got a waterproof camera again, and some video too.

Sharon goes back to school

After some great pointers from a short session with Mick Hopkinson, I signed up for a four day kayaking course, starting the following week. Having had an awesome experience with the Dusky dolphins at Kaikoura, we drove to Murchison and settled into the beautiful lodge at the Kayak School. It was wonderful to be able to relax in a place with a huge kitchen and comfy lounge area, surrounded by other kayakers.

Saturday morning, and the course started at 8am as it would every day – no lie-ins for a few days! There were several people from all over the world – 9 Australians made up the majority of the group, but there was a Californian, a German, a Kiwi and 2 English folk including myself amongst the medley. Three of these were on the beginner course having not done any paddling before, and the rest of us were on the Intermediate. After an introduction to students and staff, and a discussion of what we each wanted from the course, we headed down to the pool. The session began with each of us having our rolls videoed to see just how bad these were, and then we got onto the business of learning new more effective rolls. The verdict for me was that I had a very British roll! Apparently this isn't a particularly good thing… What it meant though was that I had an extra challenge as I needed to unlearn my bad habits and learn what was a much more simpler and effective roll. My main problem was that it took a few days to understand how something so easy could work so well, I'm still learning to trust it!

After the pool session, we went to the pond at the lodge and had some of our strokes videoed. These were all critiqued in a session, and then we headed to the 'Big Eddy' where we practised sweep strokes and learnt how to control the speed of turns effectively. Our last session of the day was a short section of the Buller river, after all the intense learning of the day, I was quite glad it was only a short section! We used the control turning strokes to glide across the river effectively and got to practise our rolls in the current.

Needless to say I was shattered after this first hectic day and ached in more places than I could've imagined. Muscles I've obviously not used paddling much, certainly were having a turn at being used and were definitely feeling it. I was very pleased that David was around to help cook!

The second day started with a pool session again, and it was with some shock that I found out that it was only 10am when we got back to the lodge. Another feedback session from the video taken was followed by a slalom session on the river. I'd been put in a different boat (a RPM) to help learn the turning strokes but it felt very different to what I was used to. I was struggling a little to understand some of the purposes of the strokes I was doing and so the slalom was a little frustrating for me, having to put aside what I'd learnt before and learn new techniques was pretty challenging. However Jess, my coach, was sympathetic to my cause thankfully! Comments about how British paddlers may not have the best technical skills (we don't have the rivers to really put them to use often) but are often the most determined and enthusiastic about boating despite some of the conditions they have to regularly deal with (cold, lack of water – this is usually the norm honest!) seemed to ring quite true. The time in the afternoon was spent on the Doctors Creek section of the Buller, using strokes to work across currents, rather than heading straight downstream – this effectively gives you more options when running rivers.

The third day, I got to return to using my Mamba again, I was surprised how weird it was to get back in my own boat! The pool session had an additional element today – the boats were attached to two ropes which were then dragged along by two volunteers, creating a current into which we could practise our rolling. This is something I've managed to avoid when our club plays this game at home, and I was a little – the difference though was that I had finally got a roll on both sides, even if they were still a little sketchy at the moment. Watching these performances on video in the feedback session was very enlightening and very entertaining. Some of the guys had been particularly mean to each other, but there were some pretty good rolling efforts. We headed straight out to the Earthquake section of the Buller after this, we had been usually going out after lunch and David had anticipated meeting me for food. So he'd headed out, unfortunately with my nice, dry, warm kit with him. Luckily Shannon (one of the boat slaves) helped kit me out with some spare thermals, and so it was to the river. We even passed David, but it was too late to beep at him, so I had to watch Kim go by with my kit. It may have been a blessing in disguise since I would've normally worn shorts but had borrowed some thermal trousers. The advantage of these was that they covered more of my legs leaving only my ankles to the mercy of the millions of sandflies in the area, which means I have a ring of extremely itchy red bits now.

The river was pretty high volume compared to some of the other stuff I'd paddled over here, and had some nice play waves – admittedly I didn't make too much use of these but did have a go at one wave. There was one rapid with some particularly large waves – the sort you only really appreciate when you're at the bottom of one looking up at the next. It was a lovely river with some interesting swirlies characteristic of a gorged run. My distinctly non dry top didn't mean I got out of rolling practise, but I was very glad of the many thermals Shannon had lent me!

This was the third night of the course, and so a barbecue was organised. David and Abi (the girlfriend of Sam who was on the beginner course) had made use of the lovely kitchen and spent the afternoon baking so we were treated to yummy banoffi pie, fudge brownies and rocky road for dessert. It was a great evening, with Ben Jackson (one of the coaches) showing a presentation on his recent trip to India. This was followed by some video of paddling in first California, then Washington. This was a great reminder of the places we'd been ourselves earlier this year. We recognised one of the guys on Ben's video as a guy we'd met in BC and paddled with on the Ashlu called David – to us he was Cal David. It was another reminder of how small the paddling community can be sometimes, even internationally it would seem.

Tuesday was the last day of the course, and again it started with a pool session. At one point when I was resting at the side, Mick came over and told me to practise bending back my wrists. He then jumped into the pool to help coach my roll and it finally struck me where I was losing the last little bit of elegance in the roll. Its not an especially easy thing to explain in a blog but its effects have been striking to me! Later he explained the others were going off to 'dice with death' but that he felt for the long term future of my paddling, it would be best if he and I headed to another easier section to practise what I'd been learning. I'm not one to turn down some one to one coaching, so I quite happily agreed. As it was, Lisa decided she would get more out of practising with us than joining the others, and so it was the three of us on the Middle Matakitaki. Its a beautiful river, with a gorge section and is snow melt fed so is freezing cold. However we worked the river hard making all the hard to catch eddies and such like, so we soon warmed up. Then it would be time to practise the rolls to cool down again! Instead of video feedback, Mick would demonstrate what I had done and why this meant the roll wasn't working effectively – its great to be able to see that since I'm someone who can get confused as to what went wrong why. This warming up and cooling down was repeated several times and by the time we'd got to the flat section, I felt we had really made the most of the river and was looking forward to heading back there with David.

All in all it was a fantastic course – I don't think any of us wanted to leave the lodge so we ended up staying there again after heading to the pub! It was very refreshing to be told that some of my strokes could be improved and shown how, particularly with my roll. I'm so pleased I can finally roll both sides! Its great to have learnt so much and feel now that I can head out to the rivers to put this to practise. Another great thing is that I can go along to pool sessions to ensure my roll isn't reverting to my old habits. Its such a great place to learn to kayak or improve, since there are so many intermediate rivers in the area, and I was so impressed with the coaching. Definitely a place to recommend to anyone heading out here! I think we're already planning more courses when we return…

David would like to say: We're slowly starting to organise the logistics for the rest of our trip. We've just booked on this trip from Kathmandu to Delhi , and we've set our flight home for the last possible date we could use on our tickets – on the 2nd May at about 1300 hours we'll be arriving into Heathrow. But we don't need to think about that yet. Still need to book our Aussie trips, plan our Nepalese itinerary and see if we can get a spaceship to take us from Sydney to Cairns. We'll update our calendar when we've got these things booked.